In “What a Life Can Be: One Therapist’s Take on Schizo-Affective Disorder,” Carolyn Dobbins, PhD offers an insightful look into the evolution of a successful mental health professional with a challenging diagnosis: schizo-affective disorder. In an unusual format, the author elucidates the many trials she has faced since her teen years, when she first began experiencing symptoms. Transitioning from a competitive young athlete to a woman struggling to find her identity both with and apart from her mental health diagnosis, Carolyn guides us through her journey often filled with confusion, frustration and plenty of bumps.
The reader readily forms an alliance with the author, as we witness her difficulties with medication, her loving but sometimes strained relationship with very caring parents, her finite marriage and her battle to feel accepted in life. Dr. Dobbins gently guides us along the ups and downs she has faced as if this part of her were an actual client (Jane) coming to see her for sessions of psychotherapy, which provides us with the details that make up this fascinating history and also allows the reader to witness her very adept perspective as a trained clinician.
“Jane stops talking. Venturing further, I ask Jane if there is anything I can possibly do to make her life better today. Help me find my home. My God, I’m realizing, she just wants to belong” (page 37).
Perhaps this format leads the author to a more compassionate telling of her own story. Or perhaps it makes it easier for a talented but humble person to speak about her myriad accomplishments (obtaining her doctoral degree from Vanderbilt University and being chosen for a very competitive clinical fellowship during her graduate training). Whatever the reason behind this enjoyable storytelling design, it lends itself to a seemingly nonjudgmental rendition of a true account full of peaks and valleys.
As a thirty-something female scientist who has actively sought my own best mental health practices over the years, whether yoga or meditation, I truly enjoyed this book on many levels. Having just read a personal account of a high-level female executive living with schizoaffective disorder in The New York Times (Oct. 22, 2011), I found this book similarly very effective in encouraging the reader to challenge certain antiquated limitations put on those dealing with mental illness. Dr. Dobbins urges her audience to become more familiar with the specific challenges brought on by a loss of contact with reality (psychosis) and mood problems that are typical of this ailment, while illustrating the remarkable potential and gifts those with mental health diagnoses may share with the world at large.
In this uplifting, if sometimes saccharine, tale of one person’s triumph in managing a potentially very difficult condition, I found myself rooting for the author until the very last page. Her manner of writing is very easy to digest and on occasion it was easy to imagine sitting across from her in some café while she disclosed the details of her life to date. Her genuine concern for others and warm heart come across clearly throughout this entire body of work, which makes it quite easy to get behind what seems to be one of the author’s major objectives: to better understand those living with mental illness.
“The stigma is worse than the illness. I am guessing that my toughest battle has yet to be fought. It’s going to be very hard having a lot of people know, if things go that way. It’s human nature for people to see only ‘mental illness’ in a person when you tell someone you have one. And the fear from not understanding makes us all crazy. That’s why we need to unite” (page 146).
I cheer Dr. Dobbins for having the courage to reveal such trying details from her past, including arrests, in order to inspire further empathy and kindness to everyone we come in contact with in life. As we peer into this complicated, but flourishing therapist’s life, it’s hard not to believe in the strength that comes from self-awareness and perseverance. As a biographer, Dr. Dobbins does not seem particularly interested in blame or pointing out the many errors that have been made in her years of treatment (particularly with medication), although these mishaps are included in the fibers of the story, but spends more time offering accolades to those who have provided meaningful support and exemplary treatment along the way (in the academic arena as well as within her varied treatment settings).
Overall, I found this book both very enjoyable and educational, all the way through the “facts” section found in the end, where the author shares a handful of realities meant to dispel many errors commonly believed concerning mental illness. The author’s positive attitude and quest for self-knowledge are remarkable and by the close of the story, both she and her dog seem like a warm neighbor down the way; certainly a neighbor I would enjoy waving to every day. I look forward to the possibility of more work from this author.
What a Life Can Be: One Therapist’s Take on Schizo-Affective Disorder
Carolyn Dobbins, PhD
Bridgecross Communications: October 16, 2011
Softcover, 226 pages